Watching the inexorable rise of Shaun Gladwell over the past decade makes me feel like the only teetotaler at a drunken party. After absorbing many hours of video, I still don’t get it.
When everyone was gasping about Storm Sequence (2000) – a slow-motion film of Gladwell on a skateboard, I thought it was stupefying. When Robert Storr included it in an exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale, it didn’t grow any more exciting.
Chosen to represent Australia in the 2009 Venice Biennale, Gladwell showed a video of himself on a motorbike riding through the outback. At one point he stopped to caress a dead kangaroo by the roadside, in an obvious reference to a 1965 performance in which Joseph Beuys explained pictures to a dead hare. The Biennale piece not only felt stilted, it took a free ride on the homage to Beuys – a signpost of avant-garde credibility.
If ever a moment of revelation were going to occur in relation to Gladwell, this is the perfect opportunity. His work may be seen in two exhibitions: Collection+: Shaun Gladwell at the University of NSW Galleries, and The Lacrima Chair at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). The former is a survey of more than 40 works, chosen by Swiss and French curators, Barbara Polla and Paul Ardenne; the latter is a new installation commissioned by SCAF, which has published a stylish catalogue with a sticky golden cover.
The Lacrima Chair features a seat from a passenger jet placed in the middle of the room under a perpetual shower. Anyone who feels inclined can put on a raincoat and sit under the downpour, although the idea didn’t appeal to me. Facing the chair is an enormous screen featuring an actress playing renowned aviatrix, Nancy-Bird Walton, bobbing up and down in the ocean. As far as I can ascertain, Nancy Bird-Walton never crashed a plane, so this ‘portrait’ is rather misleading.
Although this is a visually striking installation there is much that is wilfully cryptic – a familiar sensation with Gladwell’s work.
The dual exhibitions are presented as the celebration of a master. In the catalogue, UNSW curator, Felicity Fenner, introduces Gladwell as “one of Australia’s most significant artists of the recent two decades.” For Barbara Polla, Gladwell is “the archetypal body poet” who “stands today among the great romantics of the era.” Paul Ardenne sees him as “a major heir to the spirit of classical ballet,” following in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
All of these dizzying claims require unpacking. If measured solely in terms of his representation in public collections, his international exhibitions and institutional honours, Gladwell is certainly “significant”, but one would have to be very trusting in our institutions to believe that the most rewarded artists are necessarily the best. When curators and bureaucrats think of an artist “of the first calibre”, they imagine a long, impressive-looking CV. Those poor dopes that slave away in their studios instead of going to the parties are simply invisible.
In international art it is axiomatic that success leads to success. The curator of a prestigious exhibition may put together a dull, nepotistic show, but still be invited to do an even bigger one. An artist may have a small work selected for an overseas group exhibition, and soon find themselves representing Australia in a solo show. When one curator buys a work by a certain artist, his or her peers are quick to follow.
Art criticism has very little to do with this; firstly, because almost nobody is willing to write a forthright, skeptical review any more. Secondly, because criticism is conflated with the celebratory, quasi-theoretical fantasias in catalogues. Today there is almost no criticism, but an ever-increasing volume of PR and propaganda. This is unhealthy for art in general, but beneficial to a few officially anointed stars.
When Polla tells us Gladwell is one of the great romantics, she doesn’t mean he adores candlelit dinners and soft music. He is being equated with the heroic individualism of the Romantic era, when artists and poets began to assert the claims of the self in defiance of God and society. She quotes poets such as Lamartine and Musset in connection with a group of videos and photos. Gladwell plays the game with an image in which he mimics Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c.1818).
Being an “archetypal body poet” seems to mean that one can be a poet without words – a virtuoso of athletics or gymnastics, recorded on a digital camera. We might just as well describe footballers or cricketers as ‘body poets’.
The idea is that a gesture can be as eloquent and suggestive as any text. If we don’t understand this instinctively there is a text in the catalogue to tell us how to respond.
The same goes for the ballet reference. Being in “the spirit of classical ballet” is a broad claim. The writer is not saying that Gladwell is choreographing a dance, merely using the body as an expressive tool, a vehicle for meaning. Lully is known for treating dance as an art, not merely a pastime. One could say he took the spontaneous fun out of the dance and made it as disciplined as an infantry drill. It became a form of refined pleasure to be appreciated by connoisseurs.
This applies very neatly to Gladwell who has taken the spontaneity out of skate-boarding, BMX bike riding and other activities we would normally view as hobbies. Slowed down, turned into ritualistic performances, these activities are no longer fun. They are presented on large screens in darkened rooms for the delectation of cognoscenti who have probably never set foot on a skateboard or a BMX. Each act has taken on the sacred aura of Art.
Within this magical zone the repetitions, the lack of narrative or drama, the sheer ordinariness of a point-of-view shot, are transmuted into signs of serious artistic purpose. This is supported by coy references to artists such as Beuys, Friedrich, Turner or Bacon. There are also finessing touches such as a photo of two novels: Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider, glued together with a Rorschach-like smear of paint.
There is a huge difference between taking a work of so-called high art, and giving it a popular – perhaps satirical – spin, and turning acts of popular culture into high art. There is something inherently pretentious in the process, as if simple pleasures such as skateboarding or surfing demanded the same level of analysis as Hamlet.
Too much of Gladwell’s work is devoted to establishing his intellectual bona fides in the most superficial manner. For instance, a framed paperback in the style of Semiotext(e), a cultish New York publishing project which brought us translations of French intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. This book, which is small-scale at the UNSW Galleries and roughly the size of the Book of Kells at SCAF, is full of verbose theoretical riffing. It doesn’t seem intended to make sense, but to look chic. It feels like a relic of the intellectual fashions of the early 1980s.
The emptiness of Gladwell’s videos acts as an invitation for writers to fill the void with their own theories. Polla and Ardenne answer the call, albeit from completely different positions. No-one wants to say that if it looks empty it probably is empty. Intellectuals, like nature, abhor a vacuum.
These videos are narcissistically aware of themselves as works of art. There is no attempt to engage an audience’s sympathies, as we seem to watch everything from behind an invisible safety barrier. One obvious point of comparison is with Ragnar Kjartansson’s videos, currently showing as part of the Perth Festival. Even when these films run for more than an hour, they are compelling in a way that Gladwell’s are not. This is partly because they include musical performances, but also because of a loose, homemade, collaborative ambience. They invite us in, while Gladwell keeps us at a respectful distance.
It is the difference between a work that gives us a point of imaginative entry, and one that stands on a platform expecting to be admired.
Collection+: Shaun Gladwell
UNSW Galleries, until 25 April.
Shaun Gladwell: The Lacrima Chair
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation,
until 25 April
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14th March, 2015